High doses of hormones used to help patients produce eggs could harm their health - and may not even be necessary

Women trying to get pregnant are paying thousands of pounds for unregulated doses of new IVF drugs that may be unnecessary and harmful to health.

The head of reproductive medicine at St George's Hospital in London, Geeta Nargund, has joined the ranks of healthcare charities and fertility experts who are alarmed at the overuse of drugs in IVF treatment. She is calling for the urgent regulation of these drugs in the UK.

Mrs Nargund said yesterday that many clinics endanger the health of would-be mothers with high doses of hormones to stimulate egg production as well as steroids used to aid the implantation of embryos. She said: "This is the only area of medicine where drug dosages are not regulated, and that's wrong. We have recommended doses but they are not binding and some clinics are exceeding these levels."

More than 10,000 children are born each year using IVF treatments in which mothers are given drugs to stimulate their ovaries to produce a larger number of eggs. These hormones can cause ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which affects up to 6 per cent of patients. In August a woman died of the syndrome at the Leicester Royal Infirmary.

Mrs Nargund urges more research into the long-term health problems associated with IVF. "We have concerns regarding the risk of stimulating ovaries to produce more eggs," she said. "There may be consequences for a woman's reproductive organs in later life, in particular uterine cancer, and we urgently need to fund studies to test these suspicions."

The UK will host the first world scientific congress later this year on natural-cycle IVF - the original form of IVF, in which eggs are extracted from a woman's body without drugs - and semi-natural IVF, which uses low-dose drugs to stimulate egg production.

Natural methods have success rates of between 7 and 10 per cent, compared with an average of 25 to 30 per cent with drugs. Mrs Nargund said: "Success rates of natural-cycle IVF are lower than with stimulated cycles, but I believe as doctors we should treat each woman individually, balancing the risk and benefits of treatment in each case. Drugs can cost far more than the treatment itself, from as little as £400 per cycle up to £1,200. By using fewer drugs, we would make the cycles cheaper and the NHS could offer more treatment cycles."

Natural-cycle IVF relies on the spontaneous development of one follicle only and therefore the retrieval of, usually, only one egg. Louise Brown, the world's first "test-tube baby", was conceived using this method 25 years ago.

IVFworld, an independent fertility organisation, said yesterday: "Natural IVF cycles have been proven to work. It's cheaper and less risky. A lot of the clinics and drugs companies make huge profits from these drugs, so it's not in their interest to promote natural methods."

Case Study: 'Terrible side effects'

Elaine Rider found having IVF "a nightmare". The marketing manager from Oxfordshire and her husband Dave, an engineer, have been trying for a baby for eight years. "The [IVF drugs] gave me excruciating headaches, mood swings and spots in front of the eyes. My general health definitely deteriorated. I have tried IVF four times and each time the side effects are different. I also got ovarian cysts the first three times I had it. Each time they changed the drugs that were used. It's definitely been the biggest rollercoaster ride of my life. I've had to pay £2,680 for each cycle. It's very dear and a huge disappointment when each time it does not work. As I'm over 35, my husband and I have to pay for everything ourselves. I will try again though, even though each course of treatment is very hard. The media give the impression that IVF is a panacea. In fact the chance of success is quite low for each treatment, less than 25 per cent. I didn't know about natural IVF, as doctors never offered it."

Tom Anderson